John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Vacation Challenge to Technology Addiction

John N. Gardner

I confess: nothing makes me realize more acutely how addicted I am to my professional life than trying to go on vacation and simultaneously give up checking my e-mail. No wonder Americans manifest higher levels of stress and shorter life spans than many other developed countries. We really don’t know how to “vacate” and we remain tethered electronically almost no matter where we go on vacation.
I just attempted a work week’s vacation at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I was in a beautiful, relaxing place. I had the best company/companion in the world, my wife, Betsy Barefoot, a woman who is always fun, relaxing to be with, stimulating in her observations and conversation. Shouldn’t all this have been enough? How much better could it have been?
There were lots of other upper middle class tourists around and I noted as they sat and walked on the beach they were constantly interacting with and focused on a small gadget in their hand.  This week I didn’t get a full week to attempt to practice electronic vacation discipline and abstinence because my wife and I were subjected to a mandatory evacuation notice thanks to Hurricane Irene. But even before she came, I was failing vacation miserably—in that even though I tried to disconnect, I backslid and went on-line. Why do we do this?

  • we see other people doing this
  • an exaggerated sense of importance—my colleagues back home at the office really can’t do without me
  • a fear that I will miss something or someone important
  • people expect to hear from me immediately
  • if I am not available so and so will think that I am being derelict in my duties
  • I really do need to know constantly that I am needed, missed, pursued by others
  • if I don’t keep up now I will be overwhelmed later particularly when I get “back” (thanks to the internet there is no longer a “back”)
  • my boss or bosses do this and they normatize what is expected of me
  • this is just the culture of my organization
  • this is just the culture
  • this is just a habit
  • this is a form of addiction
  • this prevents me from thinking about other things/people that I would prefer not to deal with—by not procrastinating electronically, it allows me to procrastinate from what matters most in life
  • I am not really in control of this (oh yes, I am; I choose to do this)
  • this has become my most constant source of stimulation (John, that’s really a shame)
  • I really do love my work and thoughts about it—really my thoughts are my work—more than vacation—work thinking is just much more fun, rewarding, stimulating, reaffirming
  • this is just one more indicator of the helpless grip the Protestant Ethic’s 21st century manifestation has on my consciousness
You know, this is like the excuses I hear from people about why they don’t: stop smoking, or take more vacation, or eat less, or exercise more—just all excuses that I should discount. We must like it this way or we would behave differently. For most people, nobody is making us do this on vacation. I think we need to reflect more on why we do this; what good does it really do us? Are we really the better for it.
I am now going “back” to work for a week or so and then my wife and I are going to take our annual fall vacation to an inn  in Vermont which is so isolated that the electronic communication is pretty primitive. And that’s why I love to go there. I am going to try again to go cold turkey. I have done other difficult things in life. I have exerted my will and control. I can do this too. But will I?

An Outcome of College: What We Do on Vacation

One of the nine so-called “Foundational Dimensions of Excellence” ® developed by the non-profit organization which I lead, is named the “roles and purposes” Dimension. Very briefly, this has to do with how colleges and universities communicate to new students what are the “roles and purposes” of higher education in particular, and this institution in particular. It is our belief that if we could get students to better understand and respect these “roles and purposes” that we could enhance their motivation, and from that everything else that we aspire to for students would follow: growth, change, learning, retention, graduation, etc.

This is a challenging concept to get across to students, i.e. what are the purposes of college. I attack this in my work with students by talking about what we know are the outcomes of college—and we know a great deal about this. Specifically, we know there are all sorts of differences in college educated vs. non-college educated citizens. One of those differences is how much leisure time and we have (we have more of it) and how we spend it. This leads me to the subject of this post: how I am spending a vacation this week and the fact that I do this because I am a college graduate.

I am taking an annual vacation this week with my wife, fellow student transition scholar, Betsy Barefoot, by staying in “the Holy City” of South Carolina, Charleston, S.C. for the annual Spoleto Festival of the Arts. This seventeen day event has been hosted in Charleston for more than 30 years now and is undoubtedly one of South Carolina’s most important contributions to contemporary society. Every year thousands of visitors flock to this tourist mecca, not for beach and sun this period, but for inspiration, enrichment, and entertainment from the arts. The Festival includes theater (fringe and more mainstream); music of many genres: opera, classical, choral, chamber, jazz; lectures; art exhibitions; dance; and more; all set in one of the most beautifully and carefully historically preserved cities in North America. Betsy and I are like truckers on speed: constantly moving from event to event—3-4-5 a day, interspersed with the gastronomical delights for which the city is also famous.

I am sure that I would never choose to spend a vacation this way had I not had a college education and also chosen to live with another college educated person, who also happened to have been a music major in college. It was college that transformed me to become a live longer seeker of intellectual, mental, stimulation, searching for ideas and inspiration, the kind that are so stimulated by the arts. Knowing this as I do, one of the things I insisted when I ran the first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, University 101, was that we use that course, in part, to introduce our new students to the arts to see how they might find their own lives influenced by this “dimension” of human creativity.

If this blog makes you think of nothing else: check out the Spoleto Arts Festival. It could be a unique vacation for you to, and one more way to use your own college education.

-John Gardner